Sunday, May 2, 2021

My Old Kentucky Home - An Abolitionist Song

 I was born and raised in Kentucky and have always loved our state song - My Old Kentucky Home. Like most Kentuckians I was taught the myth of the writing of the story, that the song glorified the life of the ante bellum South and that Stephen Foster, a cousin of the Rowan family, wrote the song after a visit to what was called Federal Hill. Federal Hill was a brick mansion built by a federal judge name Judge Rowan. He owned slaves and used his slaves in the building trades because Federal Hill was not a plantation, When he died his finances were a mess and his son, John Rowan, had to sell slaves to pay off debts. Susannah fame. She is the one who visited and likely told these stories to her brother, Stephen in Pennsylvania. Stephen Foster was an abolitionist and read Uncle Tom's Cabin. The motivation behind the writing of the song was to tell the story of slavery in Kentucky, a border state, with few actual plantations. Federal Hill was not a plantation. Therefore, Foster wrote My Old Kentucky Home as a mournful tune to bring to light the way slaves were treated and sold with little regard for family and roots. The following passage in the Forward to my short story "Juneteenth" which is in a collection of short stories called "Finding New Pangaea" available on In a country where history has been so skewed even if it is taught, marginalized people can be swept up in movements to get rid of "racist" writings and documents and there is a move to do this to My Old Kentucky Home. Instead of getting rid of the song, teach its meaning and what it was all about in regard to slavery in Kentucky. It deserves to stay the state song and not only be played but have the lyrics with it, especially at the Kentucky Derby.  




There was a time in our history when people dehumanized others in return for profit. These immoral acts were shrouded in secrecy and rationalized to maintain a status quo that allowed many to be more equal than others. In the 1850’s United States’ poets, philosophers, writers and composers began to use their freedom of expression to attack the most hideous travesty of all - the institution of slavery. One such composer was a young man named Stephen Foster who died penniless and alone in 1864 at the age of 38. Perhaps his early death contributed to the legend surrounding one of his minstrel songs written in 1851– “My Old Kentucky Home.”  

The legend of “My Old Kentucky Home” grew from stories told by Madge Rowan Frost, the granddaughter of Judge Stephen Rowan who built Federal Hill in 1793. Madge considered herself a southern belle and fostered the story that her cousin Stephen Foster wrote “My Old Kentucky Home” after a visit to Federal Hill in the 1850’s. Using this legend helped her sell the property she had inherited to the state of Kentucky in 1926. The Rowan version of the story is the one told every year in the outdoor drama “The Stephen Foster Story” performed in the amphitheater on the grounds of the state park. According to, however, “there is actually a lot to be said that Foster never stayed in Bardstown. It is even very probable that the novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” provided reasons for the song.” 

When one hears all three verses of “My Old Kentucky Home” it becomes apparent that this song is more than a lyrical comment of the hoop-skirted life style surrounding a mansion in the antebellum South. Rather, the song is a lament for a young, black man who is being sold “down the river,” torn from his family still living in the Old Kentucky Home. In fact, research into Foster’s minstrel tunes from the antebellum South indicates that Foster was trying to humanize the dark skinned people in captivity and mourned the fact they were bred like horses to be beasts of burden and bought and sold like chattel.

Stephen Foster’s inspiration for “My Old Kentucky Home” was more likely an attempt to describe the sadness and grief felt by slaves who helped build the home, started families and then were forced from it. The slaves who actually lived in Federal Hill were the house servants who most likely lived in the attic or basement of the home. But whether living in a cabin, basement or attic, Rowan’s slaves worked side by side with Judge Rowan in building Federal Hill and this is where they and their children lived.

 Like any human beings, the slaves longed to live surrounded by their loved ones in homes that they not only built but maintained daily. It is probable that the subject of “My Old Kentucky Home” is a slave who has been “sold down the river” who is voicing his sorrow over his separation from his home and family. “My Old Kentucky Home” has a mournful tone that echoes what any human being taken from home and family would feel. Tom’s feeling of pain and despair is no different than what his white masters would feel in similar circumstances. The blacks felt great joy and celebrated when they were freed. Foster didn’t live to see this but I’m sure he would have felt great joy for them as well.


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